Automotive suppliers know they must do more to win over contractors than just hiring Sam Elliott's western drawl to talk up the trucks in commercials. That's why Chrysler's Ram division is boosting fuel economy and internet connectivity in its latest full-size pickup.
Earlier this month, Chrysler invited ENR to Nashville to kick the tires of the 2013 Ram 1500. We drove a half dozen variations across Music City, on nearby highways and over country back roads. Available in the fall, the 2013 Ram looks nearly identical to the current model, but you'll no longer find the "Dodge" name on this truck: The Ram 1500 logo on the front doors is now stacked to make room for custom signage, a detail that fleets may appreciate. Keyless entry now includes the tailgate lock and Rambox bed bins, a time-saver.
The Ram packs many changes under the hood. An optional 3.6-liter V-6 produces 305 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque. It's not as quick as Ford's EcoBoost engine, but combined with an eight-speed automatic transmission, the six-pack is agile yet quiet.
Fuel economy is up, too, thanks to power-train, chassis and aerodynamic updates. Ram engineers say the new V-6 and transmission will get as high as 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway—two notches above its competitors. We drove an unladen V-6 crew cab with four-wheel drive just a touch over 40 miles and observed 18.3 mpg. In other non-towing scenarios, we achieved more than 23 mpg.
For more power, an optional 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 stays on for 2013 but has five more horses, now 395 hp, and 20% better fuel economy. That should equal a couple of extra miles per gallon, reining in the HEMI's thirst for fuel. The truck's standard V-8, a 4.7-liter with 310 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque, continues into 2013 and remains the base for the Tradesman package. The 4.7 comes with only a standard six-speed gearbox, while the HEMI can be had with eight speeds early next year.
Ram is a pleasure to drive. Both A-pillars include handles to help you hoist yourself into the seat. The steering wheel is comfortable—not too thick, not too thin—and the foot pedals are spaced apart just right. The new electric power steering is buttery smooth, though we longed for more resistance at cruising speeds.
The truck is capable off-road, too. A push-button transfer case makes the switch to four-wheel drive a snap. When shifting into 4-low, a driver information screen gives you explicit directions so you don't have to go searching for the owner's manual. We wish all pickups did that.
New dashboard switches wired to an optional air-suspension system—a first for a pickup truck—enable four inches of vertical travel. You can raise the vehicle one or two inches to clear obstacles underfoot. From the normal position, Ram lowers one inch automatically at 62 miles per hour to settle into an "aero" mode that saves fuel. Finally, you can drop the truck one more inch for loading. Each mode takes about 10 seconds to engage.
Chrysler is using the 2013 Ram to roll out its next-generation Uconnect telematics system, an option that could enhance fleet productivity. This feature adds an 8-in. screen to the center stack, which can be distracting, especially for trucks already equipped with a 7-in. screen in the gauge cluster. Even so, the truck acts as a WiFi hot spot and web browser. The voice-activated Bluetooth interface reads your phone book and message access profile. Uconnect alerts you to new texts, reads the contents aloud and allows you to compose new messages. One caveat: Apple devices do not yet support MAP.
Uconnect's new cloud-based voice recognition isn't perfect, but the commands are simple once you get familiar with them. A few useful apps are included, and Chrysler says more are on the way.